Your Dog newsletter, published by the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, recently distributed a list of nine questions to ask when choosing a veterinarian. It’s a good list, but I have some suggested changes.
To me, three of the nine (“Do you board dogs in non-emergencies?”, “Do you have grooming services?” and “Can the practice pick up and drop off the dog, or do you have to bring him in?”) don’t appear to be that important, at least not here in San Francisco.
So I’ve taken the remaining six questions and added four of my own for a list of 10 questions to ask when selecting a veterinary hospital.
1. Are you more comfortable with a relatively small practice or a large practice?
In San Francisco, we have both large and small practices, and there are pros and cons to both. At a small practice you get to see the same veterinarian most of the time, but the practice might not have invested in the latest technology and might need to refer you to an expert.
Do they have a great referral network you’re comfortable working with? Conversely, at a large practice you might have technology and experts, but you might not see the same veterinarian regularly.
2. What are the veterinarian’s hours?
While this question is certainly relevant, it seems about 20 years out of date. Gone are the days when a veterinarian’s office is open during regular bankers’ hours (and even bankers’ hours have expanded). Of course, it never hurts to double-check.
3. What is the wait time for an appointment?
It goes without saying that one of the signs of a good clinic is that they are busy — so, sure, you might not be able to get a standard appointment on the day you call. But that said, you also don’t want to wait too long, either. Tufts says that the “typical wait is a few days, particularly if you want an appointment in the evening or on the weekend.” It seems reasonable enough to wait a few days for a standard appointment.
Watch this dog help around a veterinarian’s office:
4. How long is the standard appointment?
I’ve been taking dogs to veterinarians for more than 20 years. I’ve had appointments that last 15 minutes and ones that last 45 minutes. Tufts says that a standard appointment should be between 20 and 30 minutes.
For me, the length of the appointment isn’t as important as whether the length of the appointment reflects the nature of the visit. I’m less worried about how long any given appointment is and more concerned that I get the time and attention my pet needs.
5. Can you see a dog in an emergency?
If it’s an emergency, I want my pet to go to the first available veterinarian. Sure, it would be nice if it were my pet’s regular veterinarian, but in an emergency, I want treatment immediately. To me, it’s more important that my veterinarian knows how to respond to an emergency, whether that means sending me to a referral partner or even to a competitor.
6. Does your facility have the option of 24-hour care?
The availability of 24-hour care seems directly linked to the size of the clinic. The odds that a small clinic will have 24-hour staffing seem pretty remote. The better question may be: Do you have access to 24-hour care even if not at your facility?
Here are some of the questions I think Tufts forgot to include:
7. Can I park?
Maybe this doesn’t matter much elsewhere, but for me, the ability to park when I pull up to my veterinarian’s office — especially in an emergency — is essential.
I don’t mind plugging the meter (though it would be nice to get more than eight minutes for my quarter), but I don’t want to have to circle the block looking for a space. At one of our emergency/specialty clinics in San Francisco, parking has gotten so out of hand that they needed to add valet parking.
8. How late does the doctor normally run?
While Tufts is concerned about how long you need to wait to get an appointment, I’m also worried about how long I need to wait for my appointment.
I understand that some days just go sideways — things can take longer than planned and emergencies do come up, but does the doctor always run late? And if he or she runs late, are we talking about five minutes or 30 minutes? Just like the veterinarian’s time is important, so is mine.
9. Is the waiting room large enough that neither I nor my pet will be stressed out?
This might just be an urban phenomenon, and I understand that waiting rooms are not profit centers, but I want to be able to wait in an environment where dogs are not sitting on top of each other or my cat.
10. How much does it cost?
Tufts asserts that “within a given geographic locale, veterinary medical bills tend to remain within a pretty narrow range, with say, a $10 or $15 difference” and thus we shouldn’t use cost as a decision-making tool.
I’m not sure that Tufts is right. In San Francisco, I’m often very surprised to see the cost difference between clinics for basic things like an exam and vaccines.
More involved procedures have even greater variation, but it can be difficult to actually compare costs. There are certain practices that get a reputation for requiring more tests than other clinics, or for prescribing expensive pills when another veterinarian will let you know that a tablespoon of olive oil will work just as well.
While I agree cost should not be the driving factor in making a decision, I don’t think it’s realistic to ask consumers not to consider it.
So I’ve given you a combined list of 10 things to ask when choosing a veterinarian. Did I miss any?
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This featured contribution was written by Mark Klaiman, who has owned and operated Pet Camp in San Francisco for more than 15 years with his wife, Virginia.